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Russia: Orthodox-Vatican Relations Thaw, But Papal Visit To Russia Still Looks Distant

Pope John Paul II has long wanted to visit Russia, but has faced stiff resistance from the Russian Orthodox Church, which accuses the Catholic Church of trying to convert Orthodox believers. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently entered the fray, saying he is ready to extend an invitation to the pope.

Prague, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Vladimir Putin visited Pope John Paul II in the Vatican 18 months ago, one topic was notably absent from their talks -- an invitation by Putin for the pope to visit Russia.

Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin had extended an invitation, as had Mikhail Gorbachev before him. But Putin did not renew the offer. A spokesman for Patriarch Aleksii II -- the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a staunch opponent of a papal visit to Russia -- called Putin's stance "wise and moderate" and one "worthy of respect."

But earlier this month, as the Russian president departed for his first state visit to the pope's home country, Poland, Putin gave an interview to the daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" in which he said he is ready "at any moment" to invite the pope to Russia.

And last week (24 January), the Orthodox Church sent a delegation, led by Metropolitan Pitirim, to Pope John Paul's "Day of Prayer" gathering of spiritual leaders in Assisi.

Do these latest developments indicate that traditionally chilly relations between the two churches are undergoing a thaw? John Jillions, head of the Cambridge-based Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies, says yes.

"Definitely. This is part of a trend that's been going on for the past 10, 15 years. There's been a lot of surface tension, but underneath there's growing -- maybe 'warmth' is a little too strong [a word] -- but there's growing appreciation that we've got to find a way to break through these barriers. I think that with these preliminary visits going on you will find the groundwork being laid for something more substantial and visible."

There is clearly some way to go before any papal visit takes place in Russia. Putin himself acknowledged this in his comments to the Polish daily, saying any official trip by John Paul "means putting relations with the Russian Orthodox Church on a firm footing. And that, unfortunately, does not depend on me."

The person it does depend on is Patriarch Aleksii, who responded to Putin's interview by saying there are still no grounds for believing relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have grown any warmer. Speaking to the ITAR-TASS news agency, the patriarch cited continuing concerns of Catholic proselytizing on traditionally Orthodox territory.

Tom Reese is a U.S.-based expert on the Vatican and editor of the Catholic weekly "America." He says he can understand the patriarch's concerns and finds a parallel within his own church.

"The reaction of the Orthodox officials and bishops and the patriarch in Russia is frankly somewhat similar to the reaction of Catholic bishops in Latin America who have been very concerned about evangelicals coming down to Latin America and stealing people from their churches. So the Catholic Church understands the concerns of the Orthodox Church and we're trying to be sensitive to those concerns."

Reese says the Catholic Church has no interest in converting believers from another Christian denomination, and that there are plenty of atheists in Russia to keep their missionaries busy. Moreover, practicing Catholics make up just a tiny fraction of the Russian population -- some 500,000 in a country of 145 million. Ministering to that tiny and far-flung minority, Reese says, occupies the church's agenda far more than proselytizing to Orthodox believers.

Father Romano Scalfi is founder of the Russian Christian Foundation in Milan, which promotes ecumenical dialogue in Eastern Europe. He says Russian Orthodox claims of Catholic proselytizing are "fantasy," and cites as an example the city of St. Petersburg, where the number of Greek Catholic or Uniate churches has dwindled in recent years while many Orthodox churches have sprung up.

"[Russian Orthodox] should accept that [Catholics] have the right to live and work quietly, and should stop talking about issues that don't exist."

If the pope does manage to visit Russia, it will be the crowning achievement in a series of visits to largely Orthodox countries John Paul has made in recent years in a historic attempt to mend relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The pope traveled to Romania and Georgia in 1999, followed by Greece, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan last year. He is scheduled to visit Bulgaria in May.

Not all of the pope's trips have been free of controversy. One of the more enduring images from the Pope's Ukraine trip last summer (23-27 June) was of Russian Orthodox believers carrying banners calling John Paul "the forerunner of the anti-Christ." The trip was also condemned by Russia's Patriarch Aleksii, who accused the Vatican of attempting to "buy the souls" of Orthodox Christians.

The pope also ruffled Orthodox feathers when he visited Kazakhstan (22-25 September) without first negotiating with the Moscow Patriarchate, which sees most of the former Soviet republics as its "canonical territory."

Jillions of the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies says the pope could help assuage Russian Orthodox concerns by following the example he made during his May 2001 visit to Greece -- the first papal visit to that country since the 11th-century schism that divided the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

"[The pope] made it very clear that his desire is the unity of all Christians and he apologized for past mistakes by the Catholic Church. And that, I think, was received very well by the Greek population. The Orthodox Church has a very long historical memory and relations with the Roman Catholic Church have not always been easy, although of course it goes both ways, and the Orthodox have also to be willing to ask forgiveness for what they've done to Roman Catholics in the past. But in my view, what the pope and the Vatican need to do is to keep reiterating that their desire is for the unity of Christians in a world where Christianity is often under threat and that there must be a way to overcome the past -- draw a line under it and move forward."

Jillions says such an approach would make headway with the patriarch, though lay people will be harder to convince.

"[The pope] has to be able to show the rest of the Orthodox Church, which still remains hugely suspicious -- and not just the bishops; lay people are extremely conservative and often will have much harder positions even than the hierarchy -- he has to be able to show them that there's an opening. And if the Vatican can give them this kind of official opening it will be much easier for patriarchs not just in Russia but elsewhere to say, 'We're ready to respond to your offer, let's see what we can do to bring you to our own country.'"

John Paul is now 81 and often appears extremely frail during his public appearances. So are we likely to see a visit to Russia during his papacy?

Jillions says it's risky to make predictions, but says the pope's physical weakness actually may be a "strong point" in this regard. The image of a visibly weak pope struggling at the end of his life to achieve some reconciliation is a very powerful one, he says. And if that was felt in Athens, it could also be felt in Russia.